Geononwovens hang tight

June 16, 2005

increasingly specialized nonwovens adapt to meet performance criteria for a variety of geotextile uses in an effort to avoid commoditization

With applications stretching across a remarkably wide spectrum, geotextiles continue to make inroads as a key sector for nonwoven materials worldwide. End uses range from civil engineering tasks such as road and railway construction, drainage and soil stabilization to geosynthetics for agricultural and ecological uses. In fact, applications, performance criteria and characteristics vary so widely that some manufacturers have given these specialty fabrics their own classification as “geononwovens.” No matter what they are called, however, these highly engineered nonwoven materials—paradoxically—face both heightened demand in certain markets and tough economic conditions in others.

According to the Dodge Index Report published by McGraw-Hill, in 2005 the U.S. construction market is expected to see modest slippage for housing and strengthening for nonresidential building. “The path for public works in 2005 remains a tough call. State fiscal conditions are showing some signs of improvement, but more spending restraint could be coming from the federal government, and the next multiyear federal transportation bill still awaits passage,” stated Robert Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction.

Offering a European perspective on the current market climate was Wolfgang Aue, group marketing manager for geotextile specialist Polyfelt GmbH, Linz, Austria. “The geotextile markets in Europe are growing at a fairly low rate. In almost all countries the growth of the construction business is below GDP growth.”

Overall, worldwide growth is slow in the civil engineering area with U.S. sales slightly stronger than in Europe. “Worldwide, we are not yet facing a real recovery of the economic setback,” opined Blair Rawes, director of sales and marketing, civil engineering for Colbond BV, Arnhem, The Netherlands. Mr. Rawes characterized the global marketplace in general as quiet and anticipating recovery.

“As far as Colbond is concerned, we notice growth in the building industry market segment in the U.S. In Europe, tunneling shows strong growth, while the Eastern European countries exhibit substantial increases with Enkagrid in soil stabilization projects,” he said.

In terms of specific growth sectors, steady and sustained growth continues in drainage, separation and stabilization applications. Agriculture and construction are both on the rise and geocomposite products have outpaced industry growth in a number of applications. Geographically, the largest growth markets are Eastern Europe and Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.

Specialize To Succeed
Historically, geotextiles has been known as a commodity-driven market with high volumes and competitive pricing structures. By adding new characteristics to nonwovens, many roll goods producers are finding new niches and innovative ways to add value to their products. “The nonwoven geotextiles market in general tends to be more commodity in nature,” said Dennis Norman, vice president strategic planning and communication for PGI, North Charleston, SC.

PGI has found success in certain niche markets such as agriculture where the company has developed products that provide value-added characteristics in their end use. “We are seeing a higher acceptance of nonwovens for non-traditional uses in developing regions such as Latin America and Asia compared to the developed markets. As such, we are seeing an increase in the penetration of nonwovens in certain applications,” he said.

Mr. Norman reported that PGI continues to see opportunities for products that offer value-added characteristics. “Nonwovens are uniquely positioned in their ability to be highly engineered materials that can provide certain qualities. Those companies that can develop a nonwoven product that meets certain needs and can proactively take those solutions to customers will have an advantage.” Mr. Norman added that an example of a product PGI is working on is a material for shrimp farmers to protect shrimp crops from contamination and decrease variability in water temperatures.

Colbond BV is also keeping an open mind when it comes to innovative niche applications. The company specializes in 3D polymeric drainage products, which it sells under the Enkadrain and Colbonddrain brands for civil engineering, building and industrial applications. “Our research strategy focuses on targeted product development, looking for new possibilities and applications by optimally utilizing our core competencies,” commented

Mr. Rawes. In civil engineering, Colbond registers growth in the European tunneling segment where the company provides drainage to new deep base tunnels in Switzerland. This drainage product meets extremely high fire resistance specifications.

You Have To Grow To Win
Despite tough market conditions in certain areas, some manufacturers are gearing up for growth through capacity expansions and new product launches. One company poised for expansion in the geotextile arena is Polish roll goods manufacturer Novita SA. Plans for a new six-meter-wide line for the manufacture of geotechnical nonwovens are underway, with start-up slated for the second half of this year. The new line will enable the company to offer novelty products and thus enhance its portfolio. In addition to expanding Novita’s range of geotechnical nonwovens, the new line is also expected to improve the products’ resistance parameters. “The specialty materials will make our entire line of products more attractive and competitive,” commented Radoslaw Muziol, vice president, sales and marketing for Novita.

Additionally, Novita works in cooperation with producers of other geosynthetic materials, especially geotechnical woven materials and PEHD geomembrane manufacturers as these materials complement the company’s geononwoven product line. Key areas of growth for Novita include roadway construction; ecological projects including construction of waste dumps, shut-down waste dumps and reclamation; and railway construction. In the latter case, Novita’s products are used for reconstruction and modernization of existing railways to meet EU requirements and standards.

“Up until now, Novita has concentrated on servicing its domestic market, the aim being to achieve a leading position among Polish geononwoven producers. With our new line, we will be ready to compete with manufacturers all over the world, and our portfolio will be in line with the largest European concerns in terms of quality,” offered Mr. Muziol. He added that while Novita is considered one of the most versatile producers among both domestic producers as well as importers in Poland, numerous EU manufacturers have been much more active in Poland since the country’s accession to the European Union last May.

Russian company Komitex JSC has taken on a similar expansion strategy in response to year-on-year growth in the Russian market. In 2004 the company added a Dilo needlepunch line—the first to come onstream in Russia— which has improved the quality of Komitex’s geotextiles, broadened its product range to include 100-1000 gpsm weights and a 5 meter maximum width and bumped capacity to 30 million square meters per year.

In addition to its roll goods focus, Komitex also operates its own polypropylene production line. “Installation of this line provided us assurance of availability and quality of the raw materials necessary for geotextile production,” stated Komitex’s vice president Victor Pshunetlev.

Adding Value Where It Counts
Another noteworthy growth strategy for producers has been the introduction of new, value-added products for highly specialized geotextile applications. In the agricultural sector, one such product is PGI’s patent-pending Agriban agricultural barrier product line. The spunbond polypropylene-based product is designed to protect such crops as bananas by forming a multifunctional barrier around the banana bunches, protecting them from physical external damages, diseases and pests without insecticide use. Because it is not perforated, the product offers a full physical barrier as well as breathability and UV-resistance.

“For many years, laminated insecticide-impregnated polyethylene film products have been used to offer protection for banana bunches against the physical and biological agents that negatively affect fruit quality,” explained Carlos Sánchez, PGI’s sales manager responsible for agricultural markets in Latin America. However, according to Mr. Sánchez, these polyethylene film products have been found to offer only limited performance in light of increasingly stringent physicochemical, environmental and human health factors.

“Nonwoven fabric-enhanced performance products available through the Agriban brand by PGI are proving to be a very competitive alternative to existing polyethylene film products,” Mr. Sánchez continued. The technology base developed by PGI in support of the Agriban barrier product line has been found to enhance fruit coloration, minimize sunburns, achieve a better distribution of the fruits into the bunch from top to bottom, increase the generation of ripening gases and provide an outstanding physical barrier to keep away not only insects but other physical elements such as dust and volcanic ash.

Also from PGI in the agricultural sector is “Agribon,” which is used to protect plants and crops from insects and cold weather. “Used as a crop cover, Agribon creates a stable, protected environment from seed to maturation,” Mr. Sánchez said. The product was launched 10 years ago and continues to grow in usage, having achieved an 80% marketshare in Latin America. While most of the growth has been in the Latin American region, worldwide sales are increasing.

Other Key Geotextile Innovations
The latest innovation from SI Geosolutions, Chattanooga, TN, is its Pyramat with X3 fiber technology. Previously introduced in its line of conventional stitch-bonded turf reinforcement mats, the unique shape of the X3 fiber helps capture more seed, more soil and more water for faster vegetation growth. The high performance turf reinforcement mat is a permanent, non-degradable rolled erosion control product that is composed of UV-stabilized, synthetic fibers that are processed into a three-dimensional matrix.

Shown here: This geononwoven, developed by Novita, facilitates water surface drainage in sporting fields; Above, center: Installation of a Colbond Enkamat anti-erosion mat; Above, right: PGI’s Agribon nonwoven system is used in a crop cover application where it protects plants from weather and insect damage.
Constructed to handle the most aggressive applications, Pyramat is recommended as an alternative to rock riprap and other hard armor products. The X3 fibers help enhance vegetation growth in two ways. The fibers are extruded through a unique proprietary process that provides a more than 40% increase in surface area. Pyramat’s homogenous, resilient structure of pyramid-like projections and X3 fibers create a thick matrix with numerous void spaces for trapping and housing more of the water sediment and seed required for rapid growth.

New from Colbond BV is its Enkadrain B10 product, which the company reports has achieved significant success in Europe since its launch in mid-2004. Enkadrain B10 is a light and flexible composite matting made up of a drainage core of looped polypropylene filaments that give it a high drainage capacity. This is provided on one or both sides with a nonwoven filter fabric. The components are thermally bonded together over the entire contact area. Each of the nonwoven filters extends 100 mm to one side of the core in opposite directions.

Also in 2004, Enkamat II was introduced in the U.S. Designed as a solution to erosion control problems, Enkamat II is a next generation turf reinforcement mat combining the technology of the original Enkamat with cutting edge developments of fiber-reinforced biodegradable materials. Featuring a 95% open structure, the product creates the optimum micro-environment to enhance seed germination and plant emergence. The biodegradable component of Enkamat II is designed to create the right environment to enhance seed germination by insulating the seed bed, absorbing and retaining optimal moisture.

For Polyfelt GmbH, new geotextiles products have come in the form of reinforced high strength geotextiles with different kinds of polymeric yarns such as the Polyfelt Rock HM, which features a bicomponent mix of polypropylene and aramide. Also new from Polyfelt is Geodetect, which is an innovative geotextile-based monitoring system. It consists of Polyfelt Rock PEC high strength geotextiles equipped with optic fibers linked to a monitoring device and a PC or laptop.

The system is designed to increase the safety of civil-engineering infrastructure through cost-effective predictive maintenance, especially in sensitive areas. Geodetect is a system developed for the measurement of strain in application areas such as roads and railways, retaining walls, tunnels and other underground structures and pipes (for gas, water or oil).

In other Polyfelt news, at the beginning of the second quarter of this year, the company will bring onstream a 9500-ton, high performance geotextile line in Linz. The E11 million investment is designed to increase production capacity for geotextiles and further develop the company’s own cutting-edge technology. Polyfelt’s Linz site is expected to benefit from its close proximity to new EU members and the other growth markets of Central and Eastern Europe. Additionally, the company’s newest sales office in New Delhi is expected to help Polyfelt gain a foothold in the booming Indian market for geotextiles.

Powerful Pricing Pressure
Offsetting this push toward innovation in the geotextiles market is an undercurrent of serious concern from manufacturers regarding the current raw material situation. Due to resin cost hikes, producers are being forced to pass on price increases to customers throughout the industry.

Nonwoven fabrics produced by Russian manufacturer Komitex play a key role in this geotextile application.
One such company is SI Geosolutions, which will implement a 12% price increase effective this month on all products. As predicted, the company received additional polypropylene resin price increases in January and February 2005. These raw material increases have been caused by continued instability in the global energy markets, increased resin and transportation costs, tight inventories and a strong export market, according to the company. The price for polypropylene resin, the raw material used to produce SI’s Geotex geotextiles, has increased by 143% during the past 36 months.

According to SI’s director of marketing Deron Austin, “There are four key factors impacting the continued escalation of polypropylene resin: (1) crude oil prices are close to $50 a barrel; (2) the demand in the U.S. has increased 6.7% and exports are up 20.6%; (3) historically, there have been other, more profitable end uses for propylene–the feedstock used to produce polypropylene resin; and (4) resin producers are currently operating at over 97% capacity.”

Mr. Austin added that SI Geosolutions’ parent company SI Corporation is one of the largest independent users of polypropylene resin in the world, consuming more than 400 million pounds per year.

As far across the globe as Poland, manufacturers are feeling the same squeeze when it comes to raw material pricing. For Novita, in addition to constant price increases, the current climate has resulted in a lack of security due to the fact that only short-term supply contracts are available. “The raw material for the manufacture of geononwoven and geosynthetic materials is crude oil. Any fluctuations in the oil market directly affect this market,” said Mr. Muziol. “Considering the fact that long term raw material deliveries are necessary to complete major investments and the fact that purchase prices are steadily rising—there is a substantial risk in being involved in this market,” he commented.

For Colbond BV, another company reporting “soaring” raw material costs, one possible response is replacing or combining raw materials. “This, however, is no short term action and requires careful and thorough consideration prior to market introduction,” said Colbond’s Mr. Rawes. He explained that effective January 2005, Colbond increased prices worldwide for its entire product range, with the increase in the 8%-10% range. “Since January 2003, polyester, polyamide and polypropylene chips costs increased 30%-45% (20% of which happened in 2004) and a turnaround has not yet been observed,” he said. “We delayed the price increase for as long as possible; however, the magnitude of cost inflation unfortunately leaves us no other option than to pass on part of the costs to the customers.”

Strategic Divestments Underway In Geotextile Sector
In two separate moves that signal ongoing consolidation and the exit of petroleum companies from the geotextiles market, Propex Fabrics Inc. finalized its acquisition of BP’s Amoco Fabrics and Fibers subsidiary in December, while OMV announced plans to sell its Polyfelt subsidiary this year. In the case of the former, the management of the purchased company will participate significantly in the ownership of the newly independent organization.

The former BP Amoco Fabrics and Fibers business now operates under the name Propex Fabrics Inc. Financial details of the transaction are not being disclosed and a company spokesperson was unable to participate in this article due to pending S.E.C. filings. Headquartered in Austell, GA, Propex is a leading producer of synthetic fabrics, primary carpet backing and secondary carpet backing. It is also a leading producer of synthetic fabrics for use in furniture, bedding, automotive, geotextile and other industrial fabric applications.

The company operates manufacturing facilities in five locations in the southern U.S. and internationally in Mexico, Germany, Hungary and Brazil. “The completion of this transaction marks a significant achievement in the history of the business,” commented Bradford Mortimer, president and CEO of Propex. “We look forward to a future with new and exciting opportunities as an independent company. As always, our primary focus will be on serving the needs of our customers, and we will continue to look for ways to better serve their needs in the future.”

As for Austria-based OMV’s divestment of Polyfelt, the move is intended to streamline its portfolio and enable greater focus on its core business. OMV plans to find a strong investor for Polyfelt, capable of fully supporting the company in consolidating its international position. The major requirements for investors are a sustainable and profitable investment plan and a safeguard for Polyfelt’s Linz headquarters.

Forthcoming negotiations will be conducted confidentially, according to a recent press release issued by the company. The decision to sell Polyfelt to a strong investor is said to be in line with OMV’s focus on geosynthetics in the chemicals segment. As a leading Central European oil and gas supplier, OMV acquired Polyfelt from Chemie Linz AG in 1988.

“The divestment creates a win-win situation for both sides,” commented Gerhard Roiss, OMV associate managing director responsible for Polyfelt. OMV will be in a position to concentrate more on developing its core business. Polyfelt will be able to focus more strongly on its international growth. We are committed to ensuring that Polyfelt takes a partner that will uphold the company’s values and support strategic growth in geosynthetics,” said Mr. Roiss.

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